South Wellington Mine

At the end of May 2022, the UBC Library Digitization Centre’s Twitter account featured a series of photos from their collection which depicted Nanaimo. I followed along closely because I love seeing old photos of Vancouver Island and of Nanaimo in particular. There was one photo from the Uno Langmann Family Collection of B.C. Photographs that immediately caught my interest because it was of above-ground coal mine structures.

The accompanying tweet read: “This coal mine, owned by Pacific Coast Coal Mine Limited, was located at Wellington between 1910 and 1915.” That made me pause, because having done some research on local coal mines, as well as being from the area, I know that Pacific Coast Coal Mines Ltd. was active in South Wellington, and not in Wellington, which was a Dunsmuir family interest.

I did some searching through the books I had at home and found a picture in South Wellington: Stories from the Past (a book complied by the South Wellington Historical Committee) of what I believe to be the same mine site from a different angle. This is a photo contributed by Jack Ruckledge and the mine is identified as the South Wellington Mine. That white “Pacific Coast Coal Mines Limited” sign on the roof of the building sure looks the same to me, but others can draw their own conclusions.

Above: South Wellington Mine photo found in South Wellington: Stories from the Past1
Photo used with permission of Helen Tilley

[Pacific Coast Coal Mine at Wellington, now Northern Nanaimo]
Photo UL_1088_0007 is from the Uno Langmann Family Collection of B.C. Photographs and is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

The UBC image has a supplied title: “[Pacific Coast Coal Mine at Wellington, now Northern Nanaimo]” which I think is incorrect. When I looked more closely at the metadata for the item in UBC’s collection, it appears that the image was the front of a postcard. On the back of the postcard, which is unused, someone has written the following: “1918 Wrigley’s B.C. Directory lists: PACIFIC COAST COAL MINES Ltd. S. Wellington. This is 5 miles north of Nanaimo, on the E.N. Railway. Pop. 400. The mine itself is listed in the Nanaimo listings”.

[Pacific Coast Coal Mine at Wellington, now Northern Nanaimo]
Photo UL_1088_0007 is from the Uno Langmann Family Collection of B.C. Photographs and is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

The person making this notation is correct is some respects, the Wrigley’s British Columbia Directory for 1918 does list Pacific Coast Coal Mines Ltd. in the Nanaimo section rather than in the tiny South Wellington section. Flipping through the alphabetical listings of the Nanaimo section, Pacific Coast Coal Mines Ltd. is in fact listed with “S Wellington” noted on page 303. The “5 miles north of Nanaimo” part of the notation on the postcard might have just been a small error made after looking at the brief description of South Wellington in the directory which reads: “a post office and coal mining town on the E. & N. Railway, 5 miles south of Nanaimo, and 68 north of Victoria, in Newcastle Provincial Electoral District. Population, 300. Local resources: Coal-mining.”2

The Nanaimo write up in the directory refers to South Wellington as being “but three miles from the city,” and I can assure you as someone who lived there for several decades, it’s south, not north of Nanaimo. Perhaps the person who wrote on the postcard was thinking of the earlier South Wellington, which was actually north of Nanaimo. In part two of my previous blog post series about the Wellingtons of Nanaimo, I look at this in more detail, but in the late 1870s, there was a small coal mining outfit which operated near the boundary of Robert Dunsmuir’s Wellington Colliery. This short-lived South Wellington Colliery was located just south of Dunsmuir’s Wellington, and the small settlement that developed around this mine was indeed “north of Nanaimo.” However, by 1879, the South Wellington Colliery was acquired by Robert Dunsmuir, and it was incorporated into the larger Wellington Colliery workings.

It’s important to note that coinciding with the discovery of coal at Extension, the mines at Wellington were winding down by the late 1890s, and that the last coal was removed from the No. 5 Wellington shaft in October 1900. In the tweet, UBC gives the photo’s date range as between 1910 and 1915, but that doesn’t actually fit with any Wellington mine timeline.

After Dunsmuir negotiated significant land and mineral rights as part of the E&N Railway deal, he began exploring coal prospects up and down the Island in the railway belt. In 1884, the Alexandra Colliery (also inconsistently remembered as the Alexander and Alexandria) was opened by Dunsmuir’s E&N Railway Company in the Cranberry District, south of Nanaimo. In addition to the mining rights obtained by Dunsmuir as part of the E&N deal, adjacent mineral rights were purchased from James Beck, a significant landowner in the area.

As typical with coal mines at the time, a small settlement grew up around the mine site. The townsite initially called itself Alexandra, but an 1899 application to the post office proved a very similar name was already in use in B.C. Fort Alexandria, north of Williams Lake on the Fraser River, had been opened by the North West Company in 1821.

The original small north-of-Nanaimo South Wellington townsite had faded away, so that town name was available. The Alexandra townsite in the Cranberry District was renamed South Wellington when the post office opened there on August 1, 1899. The possible suggestion of a connection between the new Alexandra Mine prospect with the well-known Wellington Colliery reputation was a bit of a stretch. Although the Alexandra Mine was certainly a Dunsmuir operation, it worked the Douglas Seam rather than the Wellington Seam which was known for its high-quality coal.

The Alexandra Mine didn’t prove to be a winner in the area, but in 1907, John Arbuthnot, the former mayor of Winnipeg, formed South Wellington Coal Mines Limited after securing mineral rights from early South Wellington settlers. Under the 1904 Vancouver Island Settlers’ Rights Act, local families that could prove that they had been on their railway belt properties prior to 1884 were able to apply to retain mineral rights rather than have them surrendered to Dunsmuir as part of the E&N Land Grant. Arbuthnot’s company arranged a 3-year mining lease on the 160-acre Fiddick property as well as a 20-year mining lease on the adjoining 320-acre Richardson property. In 1909, Arbuthnot reorganized his company as Pacific Coast Coal Mines Ltd. with the intention of further developing coal mines in the South Wellington area as well as exploring other prospects further up the Island near Suquash.

Not far away from the South Wellington townsite, the PCCM operated the Fiddick and Richardson slopes together as the South Wellington Mine until 1917. Boat Harbour opened as the company’s shipping point in 1909, with a seven-mile company rail line running from there to South Wellington. Parts of today’s Morden Colliery Regional Trail, which has a section that starts at the Morden Colliery Provincial Park and ends at the Nanaimo River, make use of some of the old PCCM rail grade. You can even see a small piece of rail next to the path in one section.

UBC seems to have overlooked the “S.” on the back of the postcard when creating a title for the image on the front. I did reply to their tweet with my suggestion that the caption was incorrect, but I’m not sure my saying so will be enough to see a change to the image’s title. But you can’t really fault someone for trying to get their hometown community its fair share of the limelight.

Pacific Coast Coal Mines Ltd. is perhaps better known for its other mine at Morden Colliery. The two shafts at Morden were known as No. 3 and 4, as No. 1 and 2 were the Fiddick and Richardson slopes of the South Wellington Mine. Those already familiar with the PCCM’s South Wellington Mine may recall that in 1915, it was the site of a terrible disaster resulting from a map scale reading error. Rick Morgan of the Ladysmith and District Historical Society has written an extensive blog post about this tragedy in which 19 miners died. Mining at the PCCM’s South Wellington Mine continued for only two more years after the accident, and in 1917, the mine was closed, and the company focused its efforts on Morden.

Despite Morden’s modern equipment and the company’s hopes and investments, it never proved to be a very successful mine. In 1922, the mine was closed and flooded, and the PCCM went into voluntary liquidation. In 1930, Morden was briefly reopened by the Canadian Coal and Iron Company, but this also proved to be unsuccessful, closing later that year.

Both the Richardson and Fiddick slopes were reopened in the late 1920s and were worked on and off into the 1940s as small operations independently run by the Richardson and Fiddick families. The intention in both mines was to focus on recovering pillars left by the PCCM’s earlier workings. In 1928, 72 tons of coal were removed from the Richardson Mine, part of which was also known as the Ida Clara Colliery, and 1,805 tons were taken out of the Fiddick. In 1979, Dolly Gregory was interviewed for the Coal Tyee History Project and she shared stories and memories about mining with her husband, Bill Richardson, in the 1930s. Historically, coal mining has been an industry almost entirely dominated by men, so this interview with the only known female coal miner in the area is a real treat.

The only physical remnant of the South Wellington Mine that is still around today is a concrete structure that was likely part of the boiler building. A similar, more accessible, PCCM arch can be found within the Morden Colliery Provincial Park.

Concrete arch at the former South Wellington Mine site
photo courtesy of Maechlin Johnson

I’ve always been interested in the South Wellington Mine story because Robert Miller, an earlier owner of the property where my parents live and the builder of their barn, drowned in the 1915 accident. The Miller barn stood as a significant figure in the valley landscape in South Wellington for over 100 years, but in 2019, the old girl came down.

Barn built by Robert Miller on my parents’ property in South Wellington.
The section on the right was likely a later addition to the original loose hay barn.

While cleaning up the barn in preparation for the demolition, my dad found a miner’s tag hanging on a nail in the barn. Even though my family had lived on the property for over 30 years, we hadn’t discovered the tag. It was only when the barn’s time was coming to an end that the round, toonie-sized marker was discovered in plain sight. Miners used the tags for a variety of reasons, including indicating one’s presence underground, checking out lamps and tools, and marking cars filled with coal. They are quite collectable and my dad had been looking for one for years. While we don’t know for sure, we like to think that it was Robert Miller who hung the tag in the barn and that it may in fact be a memento from the South Wellington Mine.

Miner’s tag found in my parent’s barn

*Thank you very much to Helen Tilley for sharing her extensive research confirming that Alexandra (not Alexandria or Alexander) is the original name for the Dunsmuir mine which opened south of Nanaimo in 1884. The community that grew up around the mine (known today as South Wellington) also shared this name for a time, and I have updated this post so I don’t further contribute to the name being misremembered as Alexandria or Alexander.


Notes

  1. Tilley, Helen, “The Fiddick and Richardson Slopes of the South Wellington Mine,” in South Wellington: Stories From the Past (South Wellington, BC: South Wellington Historical Committee, 2016), 6.
  2. Wrigley’s British Columbia Directory: 1918 (Vancouver: Wrigley Directories, 1918), 424, https://bccd.vpl.ca/index.php/browse/title/1918/Wrigley%27s_British_Columbia_Directory.

The Wellingtons of Nanaimo – Part 2: South, East, West, North, & South Again

I wrote a previous blog post about the boom and bust of Wellington, the mining community north of Nanaimo’s original downtown which grew rapidly after Robert Dunsmuir discovered coal in the area in 1869. The exodus from Wellington was equally rapid, with a majority of the coal miners and their families moving on to the new mining towns of Extension and Ladysmith after the last Wellington Colliery mine closed in 1900. Even though the Wellington townsite essentially faded away once the mines closed, the Wellington name spread to other parts of the Nanaimo region. The mines and settlements which adopted the Wellington name were above-ground reflections of the network of coal seams that local miners followed deep below the surface.

South Wellington (#1)

By 1877, another mining operation had started outside of Dunsmuir’s Wellington. A shaft was sunk on a nearby farm and developed into the South Wellington Colliery. An undated map titled ‘Dunsmuir’s railway and Nanaimo coalfield’ shows the original South Wellington Mine as being located between Brannen and Diver Lakes.1

This was not a Dunsmuir mine, it was owned by investor Richard D. Chandler of San Francisco, but it did tap the Wellington seam. Because it was located on the Nanaimo side of Wellington, it was indeed “south” of Wellington, but I suspect that there may have been an attempt to capitalize on Wellington coal’s growing name and reputation.

But this proved to be somewhat prophetic: by 1879, the South Wellington Colliery belonged to Dunsmuir and it became the No. 2 Mine of the Wellington workings. 1882 is the last year that South Wellington Mine is mentioned in the annual report of the minister of mines. Over time, it eventually just got wrapped up in the memory of the Wellington Mines, but for a few years at least, this first South Wellington was a distinct place.

East Wellington

The East Wellington Colliery was located on land originally owned by the Westwood family. The Westwoods had arrived in Nanaimo in 1864, and developed a 650 acre property halfway between Nanaimo and Wellington in the Mountain District. The undated railway map previously mentioned shows this mine site as being at approximately the intersection of East Wellington Road and Maxey Road. Think north of Westwood Lake, but the lake wasn’t there then, it has only existed since about 1907, when the Nanaimo Electric Light, Power and Heating Company dammed the Millstone to create it.

William Westwood died in 1872, and the coal rights for the property were eventually sold by the family to Richard D. Chandler of San Francisco, who formed the East Wellington Coal Company. Yes, that’s the same Chandler who had been the owner of the first South Wellington operations.  He was a San Francisco entrepreneur, with an obvious interest in British Columbia coal mining. At first I was pretty skeptical – was it really the same investor backing the South Wellington and East Wellington Collieries, or has the story just got muddled over time? But the annual BC mining reports point to Chandler being responsible for both operations.

In the 1878 report, Chandler is not named, but the South Wellington Colliery report is signed by agent R. Wingate. In the 1879 report: “Two bores were put down by Mr. Wingate, the manager for Mr. R. Chandler, the former proprietor of the South Wellington Colliery. ” While this statement is referring to prospecting work for the East Wellington Colliery, it also makes reference to Chandler’s previous ownership of the South Wellington operation.

Robert Wingate was a successful mining engineer in the Pacific Northwest, working for Chandler at several of his coal operations. In 1879, Wingate was sent to prospect along the Carbon River, in Pierce County, Washington. Liking the potential of the site, Chandler purchased the Carbon River Coal Mining Company’s claim. A year later the company incorporated, and Wingate was named superintendent. An article about Carbonado, the coal mining town that grew up around the mine site, suggests that the reason Chandler sold off the original South Wellington Colliery was to finance these new Washington operations. The timing certainly fits. While the 1879 coal market had definitely been in a downturn, it would also make sense that Chandler was trying raise capital for investing in Carbon River.

Mining operations at the East Wellington Colliery commenced in 1882, and despite limited success, the site was continually developed in the hopes of finding good coal. A second shaft was sunk in 1887, within a kilometre of the first. In 1893, the East Wellington Mines were closed and flooded, and in 1894, in what must have felt like a repeat of the past, Chandler’s mines were taken over by Robert Dunsmuir and became part of the Wellington Colliery. Dunsmuir pumped out the mines initially, but work only recommenced for a short period following the change in ownership.

EastWellingtonFirehallToday part of the Regional District of Nanaimo’s Area C, the land around the former colliery is now primarily residential, with a definite rural feel. Although the coal days are long over, small reminders of Vancouver Island’s mining history can still be found in the street names in the area. The local improvement district, the Mountain Fire Protection District, has also chosen to maintain the East Wellington name for its fire department and new fire hall. As a side note, it was interesting to read the City of Nanaimo’s May 2018 report about the currently undeveloped park at 2191 East Wellington Road.2 The Nanaimo Model Airs, a local model aircraft flyers club, approached the city with an appeal to create a safe flying site for model aircraft. The East Wellington Park is now being considered as a possible location for the concept. What the coal miners of days past would think about drones and remote controlled planes flying overhead, I can’t imagine!

West Wellington

A few kilometres out of Wellington and adjoining the western border of Dunsmuir’s land, another San Francisco investor, Dennis Jordan, Esq. started up a mining operation, calling it West Wellington. Although some earlier work had been done, in 1895 operations resumed, including building a tramway to Jordan’s wharf in Nanoose Bay.  By 1896, the mine was owned by the West Wellington Coal Company Ltd. Getting the coal to market proved to be difficult for this company, and the operation was closed after just a few years. In 1907, the West Wellington Coal Company’s coal rights were acquired by the Gilfillan Colliery, but this also proved to be a short lived venture, closing the next year. The final attempt at this mine was in 1928, when the Little Ash Mine opened at the site. This was a small operation which closed down after just a handful of years.

North Wellington

In 1925, Island Collieries, which was owned by King & Foster Company Ltd., opened north of Wellington, with the intention of recovering pillars from the original Wellington Mines. This was a small operation, employing just 10 men. Henry Shepherd was the superintendent, resulting in many remembering this operation as Shepherd’s Mine. By 1927, the mine was owned by Canadian Collieries (Dunsmuir) Ltd., which was what Dunsmuir & Sons was renamed after it was sold by family in 1911. The site was renamed Wellington Extension No. 9.  Like many small operations of the time, the No. 9 closed periodically due to downturns in the coal market, and did not work again after 1932.

South Wellington (#2)

As part of the exchange for agreeing to build the E&N Railway, Dunsmuir’s newly formed Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway Company received a huge land grant, amounting to approximately 20% of Vancouver Island. This included the mineral rights for nearly 800,000  hectares. Not long after this deal went through, Dunsmuir began to explore coal prospects up and down the Island in the railway belt. In 1884, the Alexandra Colliery3 was opened in the Cranberry District, just south of the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company’s Southfield Mine. The mineral rights for the area had previously been owned by early settler and local land owner James Beck, but no substantial mining was done until after Dunsmuir acquired the rights.

The mine didn’t turn out to be as successful as hoped. It ran for just a few years before it was closed down for a decade. But by 1895, work had resumed again at the site, and as was typical of coal mines at the time, a small settlement grew up nearby. The townsite shared the mine’s name and was called Alexandra, a tribute to the Princess of Wales, Alexandra. But in 1899, when the community made an application to the post office, it was pointed out that a very similar name had already been in use for some time in the province.4

The now unused South Wellington name was repurposed for this new Dunsmuir mining community. A likely reason for this was to keep the mine and its coal associated with the Wellington reputation that had already been developed. In reality, this was somewhat of a misdirection, as the mines in South Wellington accessed the Douglas coal seam rather than the Wellington.

On August 1, 1899, the post office opened and the name South Wellington officially moved even further south.  Locals describe the boundaries as: “an area bordered on the east and south by the Nanaimo River, [with Cedar on the river’s east bank and Cassidy on the south bank], to the north by what are now Nanaimo city lands [approximately the Duke Point Highway], and to the west by a large forested area and a ridge which separates it from Extension and Cinnabar.”5 This is the South Wellington I know and love, and if you ever hear anyone talk about South Wellington today, this is almost certainly the one they are referring to.South Wellington Road

Today South Wellington isn’t as densely populated as it would have been at the time of active mining. Instead of people living clustered around the mine sites, homes are now spread throughout the rural area. Minto Avenue is no longer a main drag with stores and boarding houses, but a quiet residential street.

From 1869, when Dunsmuir made his first discovery at Wellington, to 1951, when the No. 10 Mine in South Wellington closed, coal was king in the Nanaimo region. If underground seams proved profitable, the townsites flourished and grew; but when the coal played out, the towns faded away. The Wellington townsite itself was practically deserted after just a short period, but its influential name spread north, south, east, and west throughout the Nanaimo region, leaving behind clues about coal mining’s impact on Vancouver Island.

Notes

1. Viola Johnson-Cull, Chronicle of Ladysmith and District (Ladysmith: Ladysmith New Horizons Historical Society, 1980), 356.

2. Kirsty MacDonald, City of Nanaimo, Staff Report for Decision: Pilot Park Site for Nanaimo Model Airs Radio Control Flying Club, 2018, File No. A2-4-1/D1-4-37, Nanaimo, B.C. https://www.nanaimo.ca/docs/default-document-library/eastwellingtondrive.pdf (accessed July 25, 2018).

3. The mine is remembered as the Alexander, the Alexandria, and the Alexandra. Even the Minister of Mines annual reports aren’t consistent from year to year.

4. Fort Alexandria was opened north of Williams Lake on the Fraser River in 1821, the last fort to be established by the North West Company before it merged later that year with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Alexandria was named after Sir Alexander Mackenzie in recognition of him being the first European visitor to the area in 1793. G.P.V. Akrigg and Helen B. Akrigg, 1001 British Columbia Place Names. (Vancouver: Discovery Press, 1973), 15.

5. South Wellington Historical Committee, South Wellington: Stories from the Past 1880s-1950s. (Victoria: First Choice Books, 2010), 1.